"From the Seen to the Told": The Construction of Subjectivity in Toni Morrison's Beloved

By Fuston-White, Jeanna | African American Review, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

"From the Seen to the Told": The Construction of Subjectivity in Toni Morrison's Beloved


Fuston-White, Jeanna, African American Review


In the final chapter of Beloved, the narrator repeats, "It was not a story to pass on." Nonetheless, like the ghost in the novel that haunts 124 Bluestone Road, that draws the life out of Sethe, the story is beloved. The "dearly beloved," those buried, burned, thrown overboard, who cannot or should not be forgotten, create this story that must be known and told. In the telling, Morrison not only "rememories" the experience of slavery, but she also ties her work to the production of critical theory as she deconstructs the Enlightenment notion of subjectivity to make room for what bell hooks calls a "radical black subjectivity." Morrison's narrative work poses a strong theoretical challenge to the Modernist tradition of knowledge, reason, language, history, and identity. Then, in the open space remaining, she reconstructs knowledges, histories, and identities, all of which allow for the inclusion of the African American subject and the African American experience.

However, this is no easy task. The Western intellectual tradition works against the establishment of alternatively legitimate modes of knowledge. It is not only a white intellectual tradition that has required the black experience of slavery to be viewed through a white lens. African American intellectuals have similarly tried to gain social advancement through mastery of white language and knowledge. Influenced by his Enlightenment world view, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in the "Talented Tenth" that "knowledge of life and its wider meaning has been the point of the Negro's deepest ignorance" (Writings 852), thus "underestimating the capacity of everyday people to 'know' about life," argues Comel West (58), (1) and embracing instead the Modernist tradition of power/knowledge. Enlightenment thought constructed a white, heterosexual, patriarchal hegemony that marginalized those outside the "fixed" center. Similarly, Du Bois's social philosophy for the betterment of his race depended implicitly upon the Modernist vie w of subjectivity and language, which necessitated the presence of a rational, coherent subject. It was upon the shoulders of this "enlightened," "exceptional" man that Du Bois placed the burden to save the race, for he was far more likely to act on behalf of the common good than were the uneducated masses.

However, within the bounds of Enlightenment thought, neither Du Bois nor any other member of a socially marginalized group (2) could cast himself as a thinking subject because he was necessarily constituted as Other. Enlightenment tradition alienated African Americans from knowledge and all its rewards--history, identity, language. This exclusion from American culture has formed an "unrelenting attack on black humanity," producing the "fundamental condition of black culture--that of black invisibility and namelessness" (West 80). For many marginalized groups in America, the "historical status of subjectivity is precisely that of never having existed," because members have lacked the power imperative to conceive of oneself as a centered, whole entity (Harper 11).

Because Du Bois's agenda for social improvement proved incompatible with the philosophy under which it was conceived, African American intellectuals have been compelled to find theoretical alternatives which would allow for the creation of presence and voice through which to articulate their experience and history. The subversion of the monarchical rule of Enlightenment thought which discredits alternatives, multiplicitous representations, or varying knowledges appears essential for African American intellectuals who would empower themselves to create a "radical black subjectivity" and identity outside of hegemonic prescriptions. Henry Louis Gates defines this opposition to the hegemony as "the most fundamental right that any tradition possesses.. . to define itself... [and] its very own presuppositions." If African Americanists fail to accomplish this task, "we shall remain indentured servants to white masters. …

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